Earlier this week, I had the pleasure of presenting to the newly created House of Lords Arctic Committee. Billed as a ‘Launch Seminar’, and held at the Geological Society rather than the House of Lords itself, five academics and think tank professionals presented on various aspects of the Arctic – physical geographies, political geographies/governance, Arctic ecosystems, business and commerce, and defence and strategy. Details of the seminar to be found here. I spoke about geopolitics and governance matters.
The committee will be shortly issuing further details for formal witness hearings and calls for evidence, and is expected to hear evidence for the rest of the year with the expectation of reporting back in February/March 2015.
While it is too early to say what the report is likely to contain, all the speakers were asked a series of pertinent questions about the UK’s role in the Arctic region and beyond, and given the scientific background of some of the members of the committee (Lord Hunt of Chesterton is a FRS and former chief executive of the Met Office for example) there was a particularly strong emphasis on the current state of play regarding sea ice research and climate change modelling.
For me what was interesting was the questioning about the UK and other European states who are observers to the Arctic Council (e.g. France, Germany, Italy and Spain) and their relationship to the European Union. Since 2008, the EU has committed itself to developing an ‘Arctic policy’ and there has been some frustration both within and beyond the EU that ‘coherence’ has been difficult to secure given the interest of the European Parliament, European Council, European Commission and European External Action Service. In 2009 the EU’s application to become a member of the Arctic Council was turned down and in 2013 at the Arctic Council ministerial meeting in Kiruna, the position of the EU could not be evaluated because of the time taken to approve the membership of observers, mainly Asian states such as China and Singapore. Disputes and controversies over seal and polar bear product trade bans have placed the EU at loggerheads with Canada and Greenland. And earlier calls by European parliamentarians to examine the ‘governance’ arrangements for the Arctic region also caused tension between the EU and Arctic states. Nowadays, the talk is more about ‘listening’, ‘collaborating’, and ‘funding’ activities in the Arctic – there are EU-sponsored dialogues, forums, knowledge exchanges. Will the EU will secure observer status in 2015?
Within the EU observer community, however, countries such as France, Italy, Germany and the UK have their distinct Arctic interests, some of which is based on energy/business (e.g. shipping, oil/gas, insurance, fishing, tourism), science/environmental (e.g. climate change, ecosystem disruption) and other areas such as governance and security/defence. The European Commission has asked for a ‘coherent’ EU Arctic policy to materialise by 2015 and that will require considerable co-ordination and discipline on behalf of a diverse range of stake-holders even if there is general agreement that securing observer status to the Arctic Council is a positive. And, lest it be forgotten, the EU Arctic states of Denmark (but Greenland withdrew from the EU in 1985 but still has strong links with EU), Finland and Sweden also have their distinct strategies and policies regarding the Arctic – for example, I would suggest that Finland tends to be the strongest champion of EU observer status to the Arctic Council (and of the EU in general when it comes to the Arctic region).
There was clearly a great many others areas that could have been discussed at the ‘launch seminar’ but our discussion over 4 hours ranged widely and it will be interesting to see how the work of the committee progresses, and the reaction it garners not only within the UK but also beyond including those eight Arctic states (Canada, Denmark/Greenland, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the US) and their constituencies.
You can follow the progress of the House of Lords Arctic committee on twitter at – @LordsArcticCom